There is no longer any argument that unstructured play is a necessity for young children. From motor skills to social skills, children need this kind of play. If the most recently uncovered truths about early childhood teach us that certain developmental needs can only be satisfied through movement, play, experimentation, trial and error, and risk-taking, then it’s worth cultivating our ability to allow uninterrupted play and discovery. Rather than stepping in to help, which quickly becomes a hindrance, we can take steps to keep our children safe while still providing unstructured play opportunities.
The first step is to look at our own behavior and identify where we represent an obstacle to a child’s free play. There is a fine line between being helpful and being an obstacle. I hear the same phrases like, “You can’t climb that, that’s too high for you”, or “Get down from there, you are going to hurt yourself” used repeatedly. And sure enough I hear the the cries of the frustrated young child who was just pulled away from the slide, picked up and moved off the rock, or grabbed right before she takes her first step down a steep hill.
When we approach play with trepidation and nervousness, we assume the worst and we become an obstacle between the child and park – between the child and the very activity that will most ensure she becomes strong, stable, and safe. The motor skills we want our young children to develop are stunted by our involvement in the physical activity we have presumptuously assumed the child cannot handle. Rather then telling a child what she can or can’t do, we can model trust, respect, and curiosity by helping the child try.
To shift from the role of obstacle to the role of assistant, parents and can begin with 3 steps:
- Calm: Approach any park or play area with calm. Walk slowly, smile, and don’t give any instructions. Observe your child. Let her find her footing, and look around. What is your child most drawn to? Model curiosity and joy, and leave your the alone. Speak only when necessary.
- Awareness: Be aware of exits, ravines, bodies of water, or other areas where your young child could wander into trouble. Stay within 5-10 feet but don’t offer any instructions. Now that you are calm and aware, you can leave your child alone. A brightly colored scarf on your child’s neck will help you feel more secure.
- Safety: If your child begins to climb something that you feel may be too much of a challenge, loiter a little closer, but wait. Often, when something is truly too much for a young child, a few first steps will be taken, an experimental start will commence, some thinking and assessing will occur, and the then child will step away. In this scenario you were never needed. We expect our children to make good choices about what is safe and what isn’t, but we fail to give them opportunities to explore this important aspect of play. If your child does climb and continues to go higher, stand under your child without saying a word. If she falls, you are there to catch her. If she doesn’t, you were never needed.
About the Author
Natalie Baginski is Head of School at Toddlers on the Hill in Washington, DC. She writes about toddlers, peaceful parenting and Montessori philosophy.
Recommended for you: